I first met John Lewis in 1968. I was 18 and I believe he was 27 at the time. Although I saw him a few times back then, I wouldn’t see him again until 2003, when I was working with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and doing a project with the Congressional Black Caucus.
After the 2004 elections, we again lost contact for a few years until one night when we were both waiting for a delayed evening flight from Atlanta to Washington, D.C. He saw me looking at him and said “You look familiar. Do we know each other?” I told him my name, to which he said, “Of course,” and invited me to sit with him and wait for the 90-minutes it took for our plane to finally arrive.
We spoke of many things: friends we had in common, and challenges met and still emerging in the quest to achieve social equality. And then I asked him, “Congressman, it’s well known that, other than his family, there was no one closer to Dr. King than you. How did the two of you get to know each other?”
Note that I didn’t take notes at the time, so the quotes that follow may not be the exact words he used but are true to what was said.
Here’s the story Congressman Lewis told me:
“Dr. King was in Montgomery, Alabama, at the time, and I grew-up, the son of sharecroppers, in rural Pike County, Alabama.”
He didn’t need to explain to me the dire poverty that was the life of sharecroppers in that period, far beyond anything most today have ever witnessed. I had spent considerable time in the South.
He continued, “I had just graduated from high school, the first in my extended family to ever do so. I decided I wanted to go to college, and I was interested in learning more about the civil rights movement. I wrote to Dr. King, then only beginning to become known as a civil rights champion, explaining my circumstances and interests, asking for any advice he could offer. But weeks went by with no response, and my mother tried to comfort me saying, ‘You’ve got to understand that Dr. King is a very busy man.’”
“And then … Dr. King’s letter arrived. I’m not sure that I had ever received a letter before, but I tore it open. It had a round-trip bus ticket to Montgomery and a note from Dr. King: ‘Come and see me.’”
“My mother got my Sunday church clothes ready – no washing machines then, just well water we pumped, and a lot of hard scrubbing.”
“I went to Dr. King’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, where someone seated me near his office. It was beehive of activity with a steady stream of people coming and going. As hours passed, I became increasingly nervous, afraid I’d have to leave to catch the bus back as I had no place to stay overnight.
“Then the door to Dr. King’s office opened and there he was, standing in his shirtsleeves. ‘Where’s that Lewis boy’, he bellowed. ‘Ahh, ahhh ahhhh, I’m the Lewis boy,’ I stammered. ‘Well, get in here,’ said Dr. King.
“I walked into his office, and I’ve been following him ever since!”
That’s the story that John Lewis told me. In 2013, he invited me to come to his office to see the behind-the–scenes pictures he had of the 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom, where King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
I only saw him a few times after that day, and I think the last time was in 2017, but I’ll treasure having the opportunity to become acquainted with him, however slightly, over the years.
About Peter Waldheim
Peter Waldheim grew up in the Milwaukee area, where he first became involved in the civil rights movement as a high school freshman in 1964. He has worked as a consultant or staffer for several advocacy groups. He lives in Alexandria, Virginia.
Remembering John Lewis
John Lewis was a civil rights leader. He served in the House of Representatives for Georgia’s 5th congressional district from 1987 until his death on July 17.